The Polling Place Project
Interview with Ryan Donnell by Anthony Baffo
The midterm election of 2018 has seen an unprecedented increase of early ballots cast, an indicator for the crowds that will be flooding the polls this election day. Most of us will be casting our ballots in public schools and community centers, all within a reasonable distance from our homes. Others will face the obstacles of their polling stations being moved, closed or handicap accessibility.
Election integrity depends on accessibility, diversity and civic volunteerism. Ryan Donnell’s series ‘The Polling Place Project’ captures all three of these gears turning in unison in his stills of some of America's most eclectic polls.
In looking at your photos and thinking about all the news surrounding election integrity, voter suppression, I.D. laws, and I want to start with a question on accessibility. Your photos invoke, at the same time, a feeling of broad access and a feeling of scarcity and distance. What did you find on the matter in capturing this series?
Well it’s interesting because I started the project in Philadelphia, which, as I understand it from talking to officials, historically put Polling Places in, what we would consider unique locations, in order to increase accessibility to voting places. I was told that the city wanted elderly and infirm to be able to be within walking distance to a polling place, thus creating the necessity to put them into neighborhood locations and there just weren’t enough “community” buildings to accommodate that desire. So, you had places like your local bar, or funeral home or neighbor’s basement being designated as a polling center.The ironic thing was that a lot of these places were also not very “accessible” in the sense that the disabled could get into them. I suspect that was the case in a lot of the other large cities that I photographed for the series.
There is something charmingly American about the outrageous diversity of these polling places. From Vietnamese restaurants to tractor repair garages to private residents. Did you get to meet and and talk to the Americans that represent these polling sites? Any stories stand out in particular?
I spoke with some of the business owners and a few residents who hosted sites. I photographed a wallpaper store in Philadelphia and the owner was very interesting about why he hosted, which he’d done for a number of years. He told me that he was given something like $50 from the city to close his business for one full day and he did that, gave up potential income, out of a sense of civic duty and for the noble idea of giving people the opportunity to vote. It was very heartening.
Finding these places must have taken a lot of research and visiting a lot of locations. How did you choose which polls made the cut in this series?
Yes, it did. And it’s one reason why I’ve slowed down continuing the project. It often required downloading, weeks ahead of an election, the list of polling locations from a county’s board of elections website, then highlighting the locations, which sounded interesting (e.g., City Water Testing Lab, or “pizza restaurant") and then going to scout locations ahead of time. In Chicago, I flew out the day before the election and drove 350 miles just scouting a route and locations. Then drove almost the same distance the next day to do the actual shoot!
What was the seed that started this project in the first place?
I was doing a lot of photojournalism back in the 2000s and a few days ahead of the historic 2008 election, I found myself, living in Philadelphia, and without an assignment to photograph anything. My wife and I voted at a local Italian-American social club in South Philadelphia, with stereotypical-looking, Soprano’s-esque men staffing it; posters of Frank Sinatra and bikini-clad women adorning the walls. My wife was like, "oh this exists all over the city,” so I started doing the research that I mentioned above and gave myself an assignment for that historic election day.
Of all the polling stations you visited, which was you favorite?
Honestly, it’s hard to pick one. I like a lot of them as photos and I love a lot of them as just places. My favorites are the ones that are successful in looking like a polling place, but just have something a little off about the location — like there’s a story there. I’m thinking of the Chicago image of outboard motors, which is in Ralph’s Marine, a boat supply shop. Honestly, I love most of them.
You studied photojournalism in college and have gone on to shoot for publication around the country and the world. Do you consider yourself to be a politically active person? Are your personal politics present in these photos?
Not really. I wouldn’t say that I’m "politically active” in the partisan sense (being a former journalist and being married to an active journalist) sort of prevents me from being active in partisan politics. That said, I’m very interested in politics and governance (I live in DC!), but mostly in the idea of documenting politics and people. I found this project to be an interesting way to look at the unique brand of American democracy. I see this project as pretty politically agnostic. Theoretically, voting shouldn’t be partisan. It should just be part of our culture and the more people partake and have access to it, the healthier our democracy will be. If this project inspires participation in the political process, I think that’s great.
I have never been to a polling place that looks like any of these before. Mine are mostly dull, drab school gyms. Your photos make me want to go to these places and they make me want to go vote. What was the motivation behind how you captured each location? Did you intend on these images encouraging people to vote?
The project was really informed and inspired by a conversation with, and the work of, a British photographer called Simon Norfolk, who, I would describe as a documentary landscape photographer. He seems to tell stories of people and history through amazing (and often beautiful and haunting) photographs of locations. He produced a project about genocide that is one of the most interesting landscape projects that I’ve ever seen.
Again, I didn’t really intend them to make people want to vote, but if that’s a by-product, I think it’s great. It really started out as a way to document a unique reality in Philadelphia, which was disappearing, because a lot of these places were being closed and replaced by dull, drab school gyms. But if more people go vote because of the images, I guess that’s great; and if that’s political, I guess I’m political.
You can see all the photos from the series here.